Liberal Judge Wins Wisconsin Supreme Court Seat, Buoying Democrats

Rebecca Dallet after her win over Michael Screnock on Tuesday in Wisconsin, a state that narrowly chose President Trump in 2016.

Rebecca Dallet, a Milwaukee County Circuit judge favored by liberals, was elected on Tuesday to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, The Associated Press reported, reducing the hold of conservative justices over the state’s highest court.

Judge Dallet’s defeat of Michael Screnock, a Sauk County Circuit judge who had the backing of conservatives, was immediately being held up as a sign of Democratic enthusiasm ahead of the November elections, in a state that narrowly chose President Trump in 2016.

The election was officially nonpartisan, and it involved candidates who were little known in Wisconsin until a few weeks ago. It was held during an off season for voting, on a day when snow and freezing rain were predicted in parts of the state.

Still, the realities of this race fell firmly along partisan lines, as have many Wisconsin Supreme Court races in recent years. And it came at a moment when seemingly every contest across the country is being examined through the lens of the approaching midterm elections. A series of recent races in states like Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia has shown Democratic strength.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court contest was the first chance in 2018 to take the temperature of voters across the state — a matter of intense interest to analysts, in part because Wisconsin’s choice of President Trump in 2016 marked the first time in 32 years that a Republican had carried the state in a presidential race. Wisconsin state politics had been shifting to the right; in 2010, Scott Walker, a Republican, won the governor’s office, and both chambers of the State Legislature flipped to red as well.

Then in January, though, a Democrat won a special election for a State Senate seat that had been held by a Republican for 17 years, setting off a flurry of predictions.

Republicans warned that the outcome was a “wake-up call” for the party, with a ballot full of important races coming in the fall: for governor, for a United States Senate seat, for the whole lower house of the State Legislature and for half of the upper house. Democrats lauded the upset in January as a sign of hope that Wisconsin was back in contention.

In recent weeks, Democrats have accused Mr. Walker of wanting to avoid any more ominous signs by putting off special elections for two other vacant legislative seats. Republicans, who said they simply wanted to avoid wasting money on needless special elections, backed down after courts insisted that they set dates for the special elections later this year.

Political scientists and strategists across the state cautioned against inferring too much from the outcome of the judicial election on Tuesday. Historically, voter turnout for similar spring elections has been low — around 21 percent — and the results have not tended to be very predictive of the larger elections in the fall.

“That said, there is a symbolic importance that may be raised,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll. “If it shows that progressives, liberals, Democrats are continuing to be energized, then I think Democrats will seize on that — and Republicans will too.”

Mark Graul, a Republican political consultant in the state, said the outcome on Tuesday ought not to be viewed as some larger sign about the fall. “The April electorate in Wisconsin is just very different than the electorate you have in November,” he said. “They’re just very different animals, and not comparable.”

Spending on the special election race was significant — at least $2.6 million went to television and radio ads, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending on judicial elections — and fell starkly along partisan lines.

A group led by Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s former attorney general, backed Judge Dallet’s campaign, which also received endorsements from Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic former vice president, and Senator Cory A. Booker, Democrat of New Jersey.

Judge Screnock, who was appointed to his judgeship by Mr. Walker, won support from the state’s Republican Party, the National Rifle Association and a prominent business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

“It’s not a mystery which side people are on,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in the state.

He noted that left-leaning candidates for the state Supreme Court had struggled to win open seats in recent years. “For whatever reason, picking the lock on this is very, very hard,” Mr. Zepecki said. “It’s really been tough for our side.”

The vacancy on the court was created by Justice Michael Gableman’s decision not to seek a second term. A conservative bloc has dominated the court, 5 to 2, with Justice Gableman among the majority.

The newly elected justice, who will bring the court’s split to a 4-to-3 conservative majority, is to serve a 10-year term. Judge Dallet’s election also means that six of the court’s seven justices will be women.

Matters related to Wisconsin’s highest court have been intense and volatile over the last decade, and there was even a report in 2011 that a debate over a collective bargaining ruling had turned physical.

Voters in Wisconsin also were asked on Tuesday to decide whether to eliminate the job of state treasurer — a proposal championed by Matt Adamczyk, the state treasurer. The Associated Press reported late Tuesday that voters had rejected the idea, choosing instead to keep the office.

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